WHEN just 19, unbeknown to thousands of expectant Brighton fans, Kieran O’Regan was on the brink of making a sensational debut for the Seagulls in the FA Cup semi-final.
The versatile Irishman, who went on to play nearly 100 games for the Albion, and more than 200 for Huddersfield Town, was nearly drafted into Brighton’s back line for that momentous occasion against Sheffield Wednesday in front of a packed house at Highbury on 16 April 1983.
Only captain Steve Foster’s bravery and sterling work by the club’s medics prevented the youngster having to step in at the last minute.
The potential drama only came to light in the post-match analysis by Evening Argus reporter, John Vinicombe, who recounted: “On the morning of the tie, Melia had problems that were wisely confined only to those with a need to know.
“A crisis arose when Steve Foster’s right elbow started to swell and hurt. A streptococcal infection was diagnosed, extremely painful, and dangerous.
“To not only get him fit to play, but counter the possibility of blood poisoning, he was pumped full of antibiotics, the elbow encased in plaster and, just before kick-off, a painkilling jab administered.
“Had it been a run-of-the-mill game, Foster would not have played, but to go into a semi-final without the lynchpin was unthinkable.
“If there had been no alternative, then Kieran O’Regan, who has yet to make his debut, would have been drafted in from the sub’s bench.”
As it was, O’Regan remained on the bench throughout the game; Mike Robinson’s winner in the 2-1 victory meaning manager Jimmy Melia didn’t need to introduce the youngster on such a momentous occasion.
When he eventually made his first team debut a few weeks later, it was in a less pressurised situation, although only then with special dispensation from the Football League.
Melia was down to the bare bones because of injuries and suspensions so the youngster was needed, but he had not been signed as a pro before the deadline. The way the authorities saw it was, because Albion were already relegated and Norwich were safe, it was “a game of no consequence” and O’Regan got the green light to play.
Veteran football reporter Harry Harris interviewed the youngster and built a story (above) around the possibility that if he did well he might be in with a shout of a place in the Cup Final against Manchester United.
Ever the one for an eye to publicity, manager Melia kept those thoughts alive by saying: “Kieran is going to be a hell of a player. He only looks about 14 but he’s mature enough as a player to figure in my Wembley plans.”
In the event, forward Gerry Ryan got the nod for the one substitute’s place on the day, and rather ironically had to come on and play right-back in place of the crocked Chris Ramsey.
Melia was certainly a big fan of O’Regan. In the summer of 1982, as Albion’s chief scout, he had recommended the youngster to manager Mike Bailey after seeing him play for the Republic of Ireland youth team against Wales.
Cork-born O’Regan had been playing for Tramore Athletic in County Cork’s Munster League, and he recalled in an interview some years later: “I’d gone to Brighton on a one week trial; that became two, then I was asked to stay for three months. That came and went, and I never went back.”
He had come close to packing it all in, though, because he was homesick, but the silver-tongued Melia managed to talk him round.
“I didn’t feel as though I was playing very well,” he told the Mirror’s Harris. “I wasn’t fit or doing myself justice so I wanted to go home. Luckily enough, Jimmy talked me out of it.”
When Melia took over as caretaker manager, he swiftly dispensed with the services of Bailey’s pick at right-back, Don Shanks, promoted Ramsey to the first-team and then converted O’Regan from a midfield player to a right-back to become Ramsey’s understudy.
On the eve of that Norwich game, Melia told the Argus: “I must bring on the youngsters because they are the long-term future of the club.
“They are a smashing bunch of lads and I would like to play some more of them at Norwich. But with the Cup Final coming up, I can’t for obvious reasons.”
In fact, he picked young striker Chris Rodon on the bench and he got on in place of Gordon Smith, but it was the one and only time he saw first team action.
In respect of O’Regan, though, Melia stuck to his word, and the youngster filled the right-back berth from the off at the start of the new season back in the second tier, keeping his place even after his mentor’s sacking.
Melia’s successor, Chris Cattlin, also gave him some games in midfield, and, by the season’s end, he’d played 33 games plus once as sub. He also notched his first goal, in a 2-1 defeat away to Sheffield Wednesday.
However, his biggest disappointment that season was when he and Gary Howlett were both dropped for the televised FA Cup game against Liverpool at the Goldstone. He told Spencer Vignes in an interview published in a matchday programme of February 2005: “We’d thrashed Oldham at home 4-0 and played Carlisle away on an icy pitch and won 2-1, and me and Gary had played in both.
“The Liverpool game was on a Sunday so we all came in for training on the Saturday to find out what the team was. And Gary and I weren’t in it. We’d been dropped.
“Instead we were off to Highbury that afternoon to play for the reserves. That’s still probably the low point of my career. I really wanted to play. Cattlin said he was going for experience, and you can’t really fault him because the lads went out and beat Liverpool 2-0. But I was still gutted.”
Making the grade with Brighton caught the eye of the Republic of Ireland selectors and O’Regan was called up to play for his country on four occasions.
He made his debut in November 1983 in an 8-0 thrashing of Malta in Dublin, when Mark Lawrenson and future Albion manager Liam Brady each scored twice.
Against Poland, the following May, also at Dalymount Park, Dublin, O’Regan featured in a 0-0 draw, and three months later, same venue, same scoreline, against Mexico. His fourth and final cap came as a sub against Spain, in May 1985, which also ended goalless.
Meanwhile, his Albion game time in the 1984-85 season was a lot more restricted and, apart from a mid-season 10-game spell in midfield, he was on the sidelines, especially when a promising young defender called Martin Keown arrived on loan from Arsenal.
Vignes observed in that 2005 interview: “His ability to play at either right-back or midfield meant that when the likes of Chris Hutchings, Danny Wilson or Jimmy Case were unavailable, Albion always had a reliable deputy to call on.”
There was yet more benchwarming to be endured during the 1985-86 season but on Alan Mullery’s return to the manager’s chair, he found himself back in the first team on a more regular basis.
Indeed, he played under five managers in five years with Brighton, and told Vignes that Mullery was the best to work with. “He was great with everyone, but especially the young lads.”
By contrast he didn’t get on with Barry Lloyd who kept O’Regan in the dark when interest was shown in him by Swindon Town, where his former rival for the right-back spot, Ramsey, was assistant manager to Lou Macari.
In the end, in 1987, he did make the move to the County Ground having made 80 starts for the Albion, plus 19 substitute appearances.
After just a year at Swindon, he was on his way again, this time to join Huddersfield Town where the manager was Eoin Hand, who had been the Ireland manager when he won his four international caps.
O’Regan spent six seasons with Town, playing over 200 games in midfield, and it was an association which would reap its benefits after his playing days were over.
He spent two seasons at West Brom under former Spurs boss Keith Burkinshaw (and latterly Alan Buckley) but returned to West Yorkshire in 1995 as captain of Halifax Town, going on to become joint manager with George Mulhall for 18 months and then taking on the role alone in August 1998.
His tenure lasted less than a season and when the axe fell in April 1999, he turned his back on football and became warehouse manager at Brighouse Textiles, run by Halifax’s former chairman, and subsequently became a carpet salesman at a shop in Huddersfield.
However, in 2001, he was offered the chance to be the expert summariser on Huddersfield games for BBC Radio Leeds, and he lined up alongside commentator Paul Ogden for the next 15 years, before hanging up the microphone in May 2016.
Pictures from the Albion matchday programme and my scrapbook.